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My Food Bag

Food...Glorious Food!

Food…Glorious Food!

I’ve blogged before about my attempt to focus on food more as “fuel” than “fun”. That’s a challenge for a foodie.

Especially one who really doesn’t consider cooking a strength.

I will always eat healthfully. And whenever possible, make my family do the same. I’ve even mastered a muffin that’s a combination of quinoa, rice flour, flax seed, chia seeds, apples, bananas, honey – sometimes even a teaspoon of kelp! I promise, it’s edible.

But baking has never been a challenge for me. Cooking dinner has. Hard to do when you are delivering the news at 5, 6 and 10pm! Just doing the grocery shopping and getting up at the crack of dawn to pack school lunches was a challenge.

So, learning to cook a proper dinner was one of my big ‘to-dos’ when we moved to New Zealand: learn to cook – properly – for my family. Leaving wiggle room to allow for Indian take-away, obviously.

 

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Take-away Indian food = favorite emergency meal

 

One of my new-found friends shared my goal with her daughter, who apparently responded with total confusion. She asked, with a worried frown, “How has she managed to raise a family, if she doesn’t know how to cook?”.

Fair question. One that needs a little cultural context.

I just returned from a visit to the US, where I went shopping at Costco. For my American friends, who are familiar with the concept, bear with me for a minute, as I explain the jaw-dropping range of  gourmet-style pre-prepared meals you can buy. Everything from fresh chicken and pasta salad to frozen but fabulous crab cakes, with plenty of ethnic diversity. You really don’t ever have to cook again, with a place like that in the neighbourhood. If you don’t mind a few preservatives, or usually “nuking” your meals, as some call cooking them in the microwave oven.

Costco and stores like it, as well as gourmet groceries, fill a need in American society today: to provide the second-best thing to homemade food for busy families. The problem is, many American families would now be lost without them.

Before I left the US (and my broadcasting career), I did a story on a family who hired a Happiness Expert, named Christine Carter, to rescue them. So stretched with school and work and their kids’ wildly demanding sports schedules, they ate nothing but microwaved meals. And rarely ever together.

Her RX? Simple: plan a family meal at least once a week. She started by getting them to clear the dining room table that had been lost for years under piles of paperwork. The parents were in the habit of feeding the kids as they sat on barstools. They just stood and snacked. With Christine’s guidance, the family worked together to carve out windows of opportunity on the calendar so they could plan, shop, cook and finally, commune – together at the family table.

 

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Fresh Food for the family = Happiness

 

Sounds far-fetched? Maybe this family was an extreme example?

Well, consider this: a Kiwi friend of mine is now living in the States – just for a year. She wrote to me, describing how overwhelmed she felt. The kids can’t take public transport to their respective sports, so she has to drive them all over the city, then dash home in time for them to do their hours of required homework.  She struggles to find time to stop at the store and buy the ingredients, let alone cook a family dinner – something she took for granted living here.

She is counting the days until they come home. Where the pressure isn’t so palpable that it eats away at childhood and prevents families from simply spending time with one another.

In New Zealand, many of my friends still do “the baking for the week” on Sunday afternoons. I’d only heard of that on  black and white television programs.

Hopefully this explains how and why I fed my family for more than a decade on a few simple recipes and a Costco membership.

But it didn’t make me happy. I wanted to do better.

When I moved, I made learning to cook a priority. I started by pulling recipes from local magazines and then gathering a few from my new friends. I learned to use local specialties, with a twist – like couscous lamb burgers! But I still shied away from anything that required more than 3 or 4 instructions.

 

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That’s when some Kiwi ‘Mums’ shared their secret – a service that changed my life: “My Food Bag“. Each week, fresh, locally sourced groceries arrive at my door, complete with recipes for the ingredients! No planning, no stressing –  just cooking! (And sometimes lots of chopping…)

Now, I have no choice but to make what they provide.  I also don’t take the blame if my kids don’t like the recipe. It was provided, not chosen. Sometimes they’ll even help me make the fun stuff. They have, by the way, discovered that they like more than they realize. And I no longer flinch at the number of steps required. We’ve broadened our minds as well as our palates.

 

Making Rice Wraps for the first time...

Making Rice Wraps for the first time…

 

I’ve made things I never would have dared to try on my own:  duck, dumplings, and Vietnamese rice wraps among them. I consider it my culinary crash-course – learning  what spices work with which foods, and how to trim meat and all these things that take years to learn, preferably as you grow up watching your mother cook in the kitchen.

My mother worked. We lived on crock-pot meals most of the time.

I now have a library of preferred meals and feel confident enough to close the book and try my own ideas. When they turn out tasting great, it’s funny how rewarding it feels – like it’s a big accomplishment.

Wasn’t getting women out of the kitchen considered a real advancement less than a hundred years ago?

After World War II,  as my Dad tells me, Madison Avenue started to market tv dinners and all kinds of canned foods as fast and convenient. It was a way to repurpose production lines that no longer needed to provide C-rations for troops, or so he says. Whatever the initial motivation, the marketing worked. Freeing housewives from the drudgery of daily meal preparation offered what the invention of the washing machine once did –  more time and opportunity to use our creative energy in other areas.

This ready-made trend didn’t take root just in the United States. It swept the world. But we paid a price for convenience.

Today we see the backlash: slow-food movements and events popping up all over the world, and kitchen gardens back in vogue. Even France fell victim. There, they’ve now introduced a symbol that restaurants display to prove that they home-cook meals and don’t just microwave pre-produced selections. Stunning.

Yet, some societies never really strayed too far from convention. On a recent family trip to Vietnam, we saw fresh produce turned into works of art. The wildly popular ‘street’ food’ that we’d heard so much about was made with freshly harvested ingredients. Even what’s flogged to tourists at the famous Floating Villages is a mix of the expected processed and packaged – alongside fresh produce.

 

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Fresh produce as art in Vietnam

 

The Vietnamese also practice what I’d call extreme gardening: every green patch that can be seized for cultivation, is. Even in the cities, where the pace of life today is as fast as anywhere else in the western world, people snap up fresh greens from sellers on sidewalks with baskets hanging from a single stick balanced across their shoulders. Buyers zoom up on their motorbikes, and zip off with bundles of green leaves and shoots sticking out from the back of their seats. Heading home to cook them, albeit often with prepackaged noodles.

Apparently there is a way to balance our busy modern lives with traditional rituals that nourish us. For some us, it requires taking a step backward to re-learn (or learn for the first time) the skills and knowledge required.

So, yes, this health-conscious foodie has finally learned to cook after moving to New Zealand.  While there are plenty of fast food restaurants and frozen meat pies and patties at supermarket freezer sections, it seems the Kiwi culture hasn’t gone too far down the pre-prepared path. So there aren’t as many steps backward needed.

As I’ve said before, you really could call this the land of milk and honey – as those are two of the more famous Kiwi exports and kitchen staples.

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It’s also a land where families really do still sit down to enjoy home-cooked meals, instead of waiting for the ding on the microwave to shuffle their stools closer to the kitchen counter.

 

 

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